Unpardonable ‘dis’ of the steel band culture

The lineup of activities for the 2014 Labor Day weekend West Indian Carnival is history. And, like a couple of years ago when we were constrained to make scathing reference to the appearance in the Eastern Parkway parade of a few female exhibitionists who brought the skimpy-costume fad to levels of gross indecency, so was there this year reason for taking exception, this time to a patently poor-taste move on the part of the organizers. The Steel Band Panorama contest providing backdrop for the off-color display this time around.

Just a day or two before last Saturday’s Panorama, it was revealed that the high command of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA), organizers of Labor Day weekend activity, had denied credentials to cover the event to When Steel Talks, the most important and comprehensive forum the steel band community, world-wide, has ever had. Given the reputation When Steel Talks has established, the international acclaim it has garnered, one would have to set a really high bar, as far as any justification trumpeted by WIADCA for such dastardly action passing muster. Immediately upon learning of WIADCA’s disrespect toward When Steel Talks — and by extension every member of the pan music fraternity — I reached out to the owner-operator of the web site to convey how abhorrent I though the WIADCA action to be. And I said that barring some transgression by When Steel Talks of “an unbelievably egregious nature,” I failed to see what WIADCA could possibly offer by way of validating what smacked of petty, truculent behavior.

WIADCA’s beef with When Steel Talks, reportedly, was comment critical of WIADCA that had previously appeared on the site. Whether or not that’s an “accusation” that can withstand scrutiny, what the hell difference does it make? Firstly, When Steel Talks is as legit a media entity as any of the countless Internet sites geared to inform, educate, etc. Victimizing the site because of published material that WIADCA viewed as negative equates with an American president banning the Washington Post from White House news conferences because of something written in the Post that the president didn’t like. If there’s some hint here that WIADCA doesn’t much care for media criticism, then it’s in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. But more importantly, WIADCA’s kick in the butt to When Steel Talks totally disregarded the immense value the forum has been to the steel band world. And in consciously ignoring this, WIADCA’s conduct betrayed a dumfounding insensitivity, to the point even of forgetting that steel bands were the reason the largest Labor Day weekend crowds annually gathered in back of the Brooklyn Museum on a Labor Day Saturday night.

If the organizing body chose not to acknowledge the critical importance of steel bands in the Labor Day weekend mix, it’s unfortunate that the bands themselves, via the organization that represents a bunch of them, were involuntary contributors to the insult. Martin Douglas, president of the United States Steelband Association, told When Steel Talks, after his efforts to secure credentials for them had failed, that he was “powerless” to bring about a reversal of WIADCA’s edict. Douglas is a guy whose head seems to be screwed on altogether right, with his heart also in the right place. But sorry, Martin. You and the steel bands are hardly “powerless.” Grousing about Panorama prize money, practice-yard problems and all the rest are all perfectly fine. Equally important, perhaps even more so, is the obligation to stand up for principle when comes the time. The king-size “diss” of the pan culture that was the insufferable treatment meted out to When Steel Talks was just such an opportunity to take a principled stand and dramatize it in any number of ways. Let’s hope that the 2014 experience for steel bands in these parts can be made to include an acute awareness of all else that matters beyond practice and performance.

In fairness, it would be in poor taste if we neglected to honor in this space the thankless service rendered by the people of WIADCA. There is undoubtedly tremendous dedication within the ranks, folks driven by an unbreakable bond with their cultural roots and wedded to the vision of the late Carlos Lezama, and Rufus Gorin before him, of an annual outpouring of unbridled Caribbean pride. Clearly, the undertaking has today assumed proportions that would astound those early dreamers. Clearly, too, with growth has come a litany of bedeviling problems. Given how we tend to roll, those of us not saddled with the responsibility of delivering this yearly bonanza, empathy for head-scratching planners isn’t likely to be out among us in copious supply. Having said that, though, there should be no condoning either of ill-advised (and seriously consequential) knee-jerk responses, or actions seemingly spawned by vindictiveness, or being punitive when going there is an outrage, or whatever else motivated WIADCA’s reach into the bowels of ugly to short-circuit When Steel Talks. It ought be condemned.

The Labor Day weekend celebration is suggestive of communal sharing. We’re veering onto toxic ground if there begin to be troubling indicators of the event being used to sow seeds of disharmony, rather than the unison that is central to its raison d’etre.

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